A large part of the momentum driving the immigration debate in Congress is the acknowledgment of the growing political power of Latino voters and the need in both parties to engage those voters.
Kaine decided to use language skills he learned years ago to explain aspects of the bill to the nation’s roughly 40 million Spanish speakers, and to make a political point.
“El senado ha comenzado un debate histórico sobre una reforma migratoria comprensiva,” Kaine said at the start of his remarks. According to translations provided by his office, he said, “The Senate has started an historic debate about comprehensive immigration reform.”
It was the first time a sitting senator has delivered a floor speech entirely in Spanish, according the Senate records. The Senate Library said it has no record of the three Latino senators — Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — giving any extended remarks in Spanish.
Senators have used sign language or asked permission for a sign language interpreter to provide simultaneous translation several times, according to the library.
At one point, Kaine said he supports the legislation because “nuestro sistema no satisface las demandas de negocios que desean atraer y retener inmigrantes sumamente calificados,” or because “our immigration system does not meet the demands of businesses that wish to attract and retain highly qualified immigrants.”
Kaine, a freshman senator and former governor of Virginia, took a break from his studies at Harvard Law School in the early 1980s to work with Jesuit missionaries running a Roman Catholic school in Honduras.
“As somebody who lived in Latin America and has a real passion and attachment to the immigrant story — Latinos y otros, porque hay un gran numero de Asiáticos y otros en Virginia [Latinos and others, because there’s a big number of Asians and others in Virginia] — it’s something I had been looking forward to doing,” Kaine said after his speech.
Kaine said he worked on the remarks in recent days with two bilingual staffers and joked that despite his strong Spanish diction, “I’m definitely a gringo.”
The senator’s remarks came immediately after Rubio introduced an amendment to the immigration bill that would mandate that illegal immigrants learn English before earning permanent U.S. residency.
Kaine said he liked speaking after the chamber’s most high-profile Hispanic, because “although my speech wasn’t a translation, he was going through the various aspects of the bill, and I just did exactly the same thing and did it in Spanish.”
Speaking a language other than English on the Senate floor is rare.
According to records kept by the Senate Library, Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) asked that a 2004 Senate floor speech he delivered in English be translated for the Congressional Record into Lakota, the language of Sioux tribes.
In 2005, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who is of Cuban descent, spoke some Spanish while giving floor remarks.
The most frequent variant to a speech delivered in English is the request for sign language translation. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) requested a sign language interpreter in April as he spoke about a rare neurologic tumor condition. Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.) was the first to request simultaneous sign language interpretation, in 1989 during debate of the Americans With Disabilities Act. In 2000, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) used sign language to mark the anniversary of the bill’s passage.
Kaine said he hopes he is not the only one who plans to debate immigration this way.
“I’m going to cross my fingers that some of the other senators with language fluency might pop up and do the same thing,” he said.